We Saw Pegida UK's Damp and Dull Anti-Islamic March in Birmingham
About 200 people trudged in silence in the rain, held up placards reading 'Trump is right' and heard ex-EDL leader Tommy Robinson speak.
EDL 2.0: silent, sober and fond of rape-related signs. Photo: Lee Harper
Remember the English Defence League? How they charmed their way into our hearts by touring the country pissed-up, screaming Islamophobic chants and rampaging through town centres complaining about "Muslamic ray guns"?
Well now it's back, and it's all grown up. Sort of.
Pegida UK is an attempt by ex-English Defence League leader Tommy Robinson to form another anti-Islamic street army, only this time with less booze-fuelled thuggery and angry shouting. When he quit the EDL, he claimed that they had become "part of the problem". Sick of being leader of a group of politicised football hooligans, Tommy wants a little respectability.
Birmingham played host to what was touted as Pegida UK's "first" UK outing on Saturday, as similar demonstrations were simultaneously held in cities across Europe. In fact, there had been previous failed attempts by the post-EDL counter jihad movement to take up the Pegida mantle, but they didn't really go anywhere. The group takes its name from the German founding cell, Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes – "patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West" – which has had tens of thousands walk in its demonstrations against Islam in Germany.
"Save us", read badges worn by attendees as they gathered in a car park of Birmingham International airport on Saturday. As rain lashed down, that sentiment summed up the vibe. The turnout was low – reported at about 200 – and the no chanting, no alcohol rule made the event quite dull. A heavy police presence kept an anti-fascist demonstration well away, and there was no repeat of a previous Robinson-organised outing in Birmingham in 2014, when EDL members rampaged, throwing smoke bombs, cobble stones coins and coins at riot-cops.
Having gathered, the group set off for a silent march. Pegida joint-leader and failed UKIP candidate Paul Weston later described the quiet as "spooky" but really it felt more like an awkward school trip to a cemetery.
Perhaps the buzz-kill rules had put off some of Tommy's old allies – although there were certainly some ex-EDLers in the crowd, often refusing to talk to the press. The question was, if those guys weren't welcome, who was taking their place? And if they weren't here for a piss-up, what were they here for?
"I'm here to honour the memory of the 60 million Christians who died defending Christ from a narcissistic usurper whose first wife was Khadija", George Nevison from Wales, told me, referring to the prophet Muhammad. "I'm here to honour their memory so I won't be with the goats on the day of judgement."
It would probably be unfair to suggest that George was representative of the crowd, and that most people there followed a fundamentalist interpretation of an old religious text. That's not a courtesy Pegida are willing to extend to Muslims, though. At the rally after the short silent march, Weston said Islam is "the same side of the same coin" as Nazism. Pegida insist that they're not racist, but they take their own alarmist reading of Islam, then assume all Muslims ascribe to it and can't interpret their religion how they see fit. It's a bit like saying all Christians enjoy smashing babies against rocks and are cool with slavery because the Bible says so.
Which is not to say political Islam isn't a thing, but the nuance of Pegida's approach is probably best summed up by the fact that some protesters had "Trump is Right" placards.
British-Pakistani man Muhammed Suleman Khan also addressed the crowd about the threats to Muslims who renounce Islam. He told the story of Nissar Hussain who "was physically attacked while his eight-year-old son was in his house because he turned away from Islam. A smashed knee, a smashed hand – they were aiming for his head." It seemed fairly worthwhile until he said racist "rivers of blood" poster-boy Enoch Powell was right, and that Muslims who don't like the UK should leave. He summed up what he saw as the Muslim community's attitude: "Join us, you have a hug, leave us, you're dead."
The sincerity of Muhammed's conviction about the treatment of apostates wasn't in question. But I couldn't help but think that Pegida follows a similar logic in reverse, with only people who repudiate Islam entirely credited with any thoughts of their own, and everyone else assumed to be unthinking members of some enormous, sinister cult.
For instance, Pegida co-leader Anne Marie Waters said that under Islam women are treated "like dirt" and railed against politicians, but didn't find time to mention, for instance, the Birmingham Muslim women from the Labour Party calling out the "systematic misogyny" of Muslim men in the party – something that was in the news the day before the demo. Pegida rails against oppression in Islamic communities but doesn't seem to notice when Muslims themselves challenge it.
Then there was the more obvious stupidity. "David Cameron has pretty much decided that strangers from far-away lands are more important than we are," said Waters. When migrants have been told they'll need to earn £35,000 just to live here and people still shiver in the Calais jungle, you have to wonder what planet Waters is sourcing her news from.
The reported poor turnout aside, a few of the respectable, middle class types milled about that Pegida will need to lure if it is to be a success.
John, wearing a bowler hat and with his dog in tow, seemed to personify this. He said he was a third-generation Irish immigrant himself, but said new immigrants should do more to assimilate: "We left our shillelagh behind, you see... I don't think it's conducive to maintaining our cultures and traditions and think we might well have been mistaken in encouraging [immigrants] to remain separate and apart with our laws of multiculturalism. We cannot maintain this continual open borders nonsense."
As the rain poured and Rule Britannia played over a PA, a university lecturer wearing a Barbour jacket and a tweed flat-cap said, "I think it's fantastic. I hope I'll be able to come next time and bring friends. I think it'll grow and we'll see a real, good, peaceful grassroots movement to demonstrate that we must, for the sake of the country, resist Islamisation."
Was that optimism well founded? At the end of the demo, Robinson told the crowd that there would be another demo in April, and then every month thereafter, in the same location. The boring repetition of touring the country's car-parks with no obvious political strategy apart from pissed-up, angry shouting was one of the things that led to the slow death of the EDL. Pegida UK seems set to do the same thing, only without the lure of a boozy day out and always in the same Birmingham business-parky area far away from where anyone can hear their anguished moaning. It's hard to see it being that appealing, but you can't underestimate the victimhood complex at play here.
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